Gun, with Occasional Music
by Jonathan Lethem
ROGUES GALLERY:
JONATHAN LETHEM
Essay by Ted Gioia

Gun, with Occasional Music is the book Raymond
Chandler might have written if he had spent time
on
Dr. Moreau’s Island along with Ken Kesey and
Philip K. Dick. Okay, he didn’t. So it was left for
Jonathan Lethem to step into the gap and delivery
this hard-boiled, drugged-
out, future-tripping tale of
crime and karma on the
streets of Oakland.  

As fans of Lethem’s work have
come to learn, the borderlines
between genres are undefended
in his stories—no ID checks, no
customs agents, no big fence.  
What starts as a
noir mystery or
superhero adventure can morph
into something quite different in
the very next chapter. Already in
this debut novel, published in 1994 shortly after the
author’s 30th birthday, he delivers a text that refuses to
fit easily into any section of the bookstore.  

Our story takes place at an undetermined date in the
future, when police functions have been taken over by
public inquisitors, but a few P.I.s—private inquisitors—
are still allowed to represent clients and do their
gumshoe trade. Our hero Conrad Metcalf  learns in the
opening pages that his latest client, a prominent doctor,
has been murdered in a sleazy motel.  But here’s some
consolation: he soon finds a new person seeking his
services—the man who is being set up by the Inquisition
as the fall guy in the crime.   

Related Reviews
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

As is often the case with Lethem, the fantasy and sci-fi
elements in this story are woven into the background.
The basic plot is…well, perhaps calling it realistic would
be going too far. But no leaps into the imaginative void
are necessary to comprehend the familiar detective-tries-
to-solve-murder puzzle that sits at the center of
Gun,
with Occasional Music
. What makes Lethem so intriguing
as an author of speculative fiction is how much zany
creativity he expends on the smaller details of his stories.  
Woody Allen once contemplated making a comedy movie
in which all of the gags take place in the background,
while a serious drama occupies the foreground of the
story. Lethem’s approach to storytelling is somewhat
akin to this topsy-turvy formula—his tales get stranger
and stranger the more you move into the periphery of the
plot.  

Readers of his
The Fortress of Solitude (still almost a decade
in the future at the time of this early effort) encountered
this when, deep into this gritty account of life on the streets
of Brooklyn, an unconventional superhero character—a
homeless man who can fly through the air—is introduced
to disrupt a narrative that otherwise seems so true-to-life.  
The same kind of background disturbances impart a
curious flavor to Lethem’s more recent novel
Chronic City,
in which the central story of buddies in New York is
juxtaposed with a host of sci-fi sub-plots, involving
everything from war in outer space to a raging mechanical
tiger. Unlike, say, H.G. Wells, who built his plots squarely
on impossibilities—time machines, invisible men—
Lethem keeps the main plot real-as-rain, but hides his
wildest ideas in the backdrop.

This is definitely the case with
Gun, with Occasional Music.  
As we follow P.I. Metcalf in his attempt to determine
who killed his client, a host of bizarre elements begin
to intrude into our view.   Evolved animals, who can talk
and work 9-to-5 jobs, show up as minor characters.
Everyone seems to carry a karma card, and if the balance
falls to zero, bad things tend to happen to them. Music
has replaced much of the news. And strange drugs are
everywhere, with side effects that would even
discourage Timothy Leary from getting his prescriptions
filled.

Metcalf’s personal blend of narcotic is mostly Acceptol,
with enough Regrettol mixed in to provide a
“bittersweet edge,” and a little bit of Addictol to
keep him coming back for more. He tends to leave
out the Forgettol completely—a private inquisitioner
can’t afford to enjoy the joys of sweet oblivion. Even
stronger mixtures are available—although sometimes
you need to get them from the black market—and at
an extreme, youf personal recipe can do to your brain
what Rotorooter does to a blockage in your plumbing.

The blend at work in the construction of this book is

almost as strange as that employed by our detective in his
leisure hours. Much of the fun in reading Lethem is how

well his stories work at different levels. Gun, with Occasional
Music
is not his best work—not until Motherless Brooklyn
and The Fortress of Solitude would he really show his skill
at developing compelling characters with raw and plausible
emotional lives. And the pacing of this novel is

occasionally sluggish, with the many interrogations
of suspects and witnesses lacking the kind of ingenuity
that, say, an Agatha Christie brings to those kinds of
scenes. Even so there is much to admire here—
especially in the dialogue, the scene-setting, and the
various phantasmagorical elements.  

And for a literary debut by an author just moving out

of his twenties, this book showed some serious bravado.  
In retrospect, we can see how it signaled the arrival of
a provocative talent, one who would help redefine the
boundaries between serious and genre fiction.  And that

would turn out to be not just a perfect role for Jonathan
Lethem, but also an appealing turnabout for the often
sluggish world of literary fiction as its parameters were
redefined in the years following the publication of this
book.  No, Lethem didn’t do that on his own—give
credit to David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, David Foster
Wallace, Audrey Niffenegger, Mark Z. Danielewski and
others for the parts they have played in this matter—but
he, as much as anyone, raised the stakes and raked in the
chips in a game that is still very much underway.


Ted Gioia's latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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Further Clues:

Jonathan Lethem Home Page

Interview with Jonathan Lethem by Lorin Stein from The
Paris Review

Interview with Jonathan Lethem by Ronnie Scott

"The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" by Jonathan
Lethem from Harper's

Jonathan Lethem Q&A from The New Yorker
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I must have crossed paths with Jonathan
Lethem when he was working at Moe’s
bookstore in Berkeley.  Certainly I tried to
deal with any employee other than
Moe
himself—who scrutinized the books I brought
in for resale, his grimaces passing aesthetic









which included seeing
Star Wars more than
twenty times, hitchhiking through the Western
US, and reading the collected works of
Philip
K. Dick (another Berkeleyite, one who made
Moe look like the man in the gray flannel suit).   
But this apprenticeship unlike anything vetted
by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop produced one
of the freshest voices in American fiction.
The promise of quirky early novels such as
Gun, with Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon
reached equally quirky fruition in masterworks
such as
Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of
Solitude.  Along the way, Lethem has chronicled
the music of the Talking Heads and Bob Dylan,
defended plagiarism in a famous essay (which
we all hope is wholly original), and most recently
stepped into the capacious shoes of the late
David Foster Wallace as the Roy E. Disney
Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona
College.  Definitely an
E Ticket required for
that course!
judgment long before
the niceties of price
came into consideration.
Serving as understudy
to this anti-Harold
Bloom was all part of
Lethem’s alternative
plan of self-education
for an aspiring writer,